Advocates hope to increase low-income students’ enrollment in selective schools

Meanwhile, a proposed merger of two state agencies might increase merit-based aid in place of need-based aid.

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

A report released last week by the Educational Testing Service shows college students from low-income families are the most underrepresented group at the nation’s 146 most selective universities.

That is a problem Admission Possible, a college preparatory program for low-income students, hopes to eliminate.

Ryan Black, a University political science junior, is the program mentor helping guide promising low-income kids toward higher education, including the five Patrick Henry High School juniors attending Admission Possible on Wednesday night.

“These kids are at a disadvantage,” Black said. “Giving them opportunities to develop their intellectual capability in a college setting is very important.”

Mary Hershberger-Thun, a Minnesota Higher Education Services Office council member, said the problem lies largely with a lack of need-based aid for low-income students.

The Minnesota State University Student Association proposed March 26 the possible merging of the Higher Education Services Office, which distributes state grants, with the Higher Education Advisory Council.

Among other things, the merger could increase merit-based financial aid in place of need-based financial aid, something Hershberger-Thun said she opposes.

“Our express purpose at the Higher Education Services Office is to provide financial aid to low-income students,” she said.

Hershberger-Thun said she is unsure what the new goals would be if there were a merger.

“We have a system of education that makes it pretty difficult for low-income kids to get the same education that middle- and higher-income kids get,” said Jim McCorkell, Admission Possible’s founder.

The organization works with 400 high school students from 10 Twin Cities schools.

McCorkell sees the absence of low-income students at the nation’s top universities as a larger reflection of society and its priorities. He said a child’s formative educational years play a big role in the formulation of their attitudes toward higher education.

“Starting with prenatal care and which kids get good preschool, public and private school experiences, that then translates into kids who feel like college is not a realistic option for them,” he said.

Aside from what McCorkell sees as fatal flaws in the U.S. education system, he said other factors such as college entrance exams, such as the ACT, seem almost geared toward keeping certain lower-income kids out of college.

“Many of the low-income kids from Minneapolis-St. Paul are Somalian, Ethiopian or Hmong immigrants. For them, English isn’t their first language,” he said. “If English isn’t your first language, trying to do well on an analogy test is difficult.”

Admission Possible works with such students to prepare them for all the aspects of getting into college, McCorkell said.

It is a complete process, he said, from helping students do well in high school and on college entrance exams to applying to schools and filling out financial aid paperwork.

McCorkell said he sees a bias against low-income students in this process as well.

“If you’re a low-income student, you’ve got to stay in school, get good grades, get a good ACT score, fill out forms, get admitted to college and the very last thing is that letter saying how much it is going to cost you,” he said.

Such a process would be illogical if one was buying a car, McCorkell said.

“You would have to choose a car before you knew what it was going to cost,” he said. “That’s an odd pricing scheme.”

Though the workload, compounded with other responsibilities, is difficult – one student has stopped coming due to her 30-hour-per-week job at Target – the Patrick Henry students agree such a program is a huge help.

“If (Admission Possible) didn’t make us choose our dates for tests and help us out, I probably wouldn’t even have registered for the ACT,” 17-year-old Alycia Klatt said.

The ambitious kids are preparing for their first run at the ACT on Saturday. There is a collective giggle over the anxiety regarding the science section of the exam. But everyone said they feel ready.

Black said such a program counteracts the negative cycle of poverty.

“When these kids get to college, their immediate instinct is to help those still in high school get a leg up,” he said, referring to graduates of the program’s first year.

“This creates a positive cycle where you have students who continue to put back into their community,” Black said.

Geoff Ziezulewicz welcomes comments at [email protected]